The Fire of Lagos

What do Hangzhou, London, Utrecht, and Tokyo have in common?

Obvious is that they’re all large cities, but what you might be unaware of is that each of these major cities was virtually decimated by a single fire incident.

In June 1132, a massive fire tore through Hangzhou, killing over 10,000 people.

Five years later in 1137, it happened again.

In 1135, a fire destroyed most of London from St. Paul’s to St. Clement Danes.

In 1212, another fire burned most of London south of the bridge, and even burnt London Bridge, which only survived the flames because it had just been reconstructed with stone, but not before killing at least 3000 people who were trying to flee by crossing the bridge. And that number doesn’t even account for anyone else killed in the city.

Lithograph depicting the Great Fire of London

In 1666, London was once again mostly reduced to ashes by a fire that infamously began in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane.

In 1253, Utrecht burned for 9 full days, killing uncountable numbers of people, and reducing most of the city to nothing.

In 1657, on the 2nd of March, a great fire burned seventy percent of Edo (now called Tokyo) to the ground, killing no fewer than 100,000 people.

Woodblock print depicting the fire of Edo

All of these cities were tightly packed, overcrowded, featuring narrow, winding streets, alleys, and roads that relied more on local familiarity than logical arrangement.

All of these cities had buildings lacking multiple routes of egress, built without standardised construction rules, situated very close together, housing more people than could safely evacuate rapidly in an emergency.

All of these cities had a population of at least one million people at the time of the blaze.

All of these cities are Lagos.

And Lagos in 2020 is all of these cities, combined.

It is not a matter of if a fire large enough to burn 75% of Lagos state to the ground will break out, but of when.


Neither Lagos nor Nigeria as a whole has the civil and medical infrastructure to deal with a disaster on such a massive scale. The consequences when it happens, will be grave enough to divert the course of national history.

Tonight, in Abule Egba, Lagos, a crude oil pipeline, repeatedly vandalised, exploded and set the entire neighbourhood alight, lighting up the night sky.

Abule Egba is on fire tonight.

Courtesy of ubiquitous high definition smartphones, media streaming in via Twitter paints a fiery hell scape in which, proven by at least one video, a serious number of people have already horrifically lost their lives.

As terrifying as these images are, it can, and will be much worse whenever The Great Fire of Lagos arrives.

The city is sprawling out of control. Though some people will point to the spacious, well planned new developments in Lekki, Ikoyi, and Eko Atlantic City as unlikely to ever catch fire, all that’s guaranteed is that those neighbourhoods home to the high, the mighty, and the well heeled will be spared, while the average Lagosian will die screaming as the rest of Lagos, even some nice parts of old Apapa, burns to blackened cinder blocks.

Almost all of the ancient cities which still stand today, took steps to prevent the spread of fire from structure to structure through large scale city planning, and standardisation of fire prevention rules, and enforcement of building codes.

Hausmann’s great accomplishment.

Admittedly, being reduced to rubble made it relatively easy to employ better planning when rebuilding, and Lagos hasn’t fallen yet. It’s still standing.

We’ve heard ad nauseam that Lagos is a megacity with 21 million inhabitants. It seems well past the point of saving or improving, but it can be done. The Hausmannisation of Paris was hugely unpopular, almost bankrupted the government, and took decades from start to finish, but there is no other choice, and no other way.

In return, the latter city fires of the modern day, while deeply tragic, have been for the most part, well contained.

Grenfell, possibly the worst fire urban fire in recent memory, killed 72 people, but was limited to one building because most of the buildings nearby were sufficiently well spaced, and weren’t built with the same flammable cladding that made the Grenfell fire jump several floors at a time.

The fire of Grenfell Tower

In many ways, Grenfell itself was a poorly planned, fire unsafe neighbourhood, only vertical instead of spread across the ground.

The same held for the Fire of Notre Dame. Neighbouring buildings were in some danger, but damage was minimal at worst.

Idumota Market

Lagos isn’t like any of these others.

Lagos just simply does not belong.

Right now, only the Island neighbourhoods, protected firmly by the moat of the lagoon, are safe.

Even if only on a rolling basis, if the mainland of Lagos isn’t levelled and purposely rebuilt, The Great Fire of Lagos will do it for us.

Onitsha, just as overcrowded with its ill-conceived market, has already burned.

So too, will The Great Fire of Lagos be born in a market.

Who will fiddle while Lagos burns?

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  1. N'anya

    A very well written piece as always. I too share the sentiment that Lagos has to be torn down to the ground and then rebuilt, I’ve said this a number of times and it was dismissed as unreasonable. I really hope that if or when this happens the magnitude of damage would not be too great because we are definitely not prepared for anything as catastrophic as that.

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